Combating the 'Evil' Dentist Trope

April 5, 2016
DMD Staff

You can't erase fictional nightmare dentists like Seinfeld's Tim Whatley from the zeitgeist, but there are some steps you can take to make your patients more at ease.

Pop culture has had a field day with the field of dentistry for quite a long time, with depictions that range from the truly harrowing (Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man) to the exceedingly inappropriate (Jennifer Aniston’s lusty dentist in the Horrible Bosses movies) to the slightly harrowing but funny (Bryan Cranston’s Seinfeld Dentist Tim Whatley, and Steve Martin’s Dr. Orin Scrivello). Music and literature haven’t been much kinder. When your most notable pop culture hero is noted Western folk hero and scallywag Doc Holliday, your profession could use a little PR bump!

But while most patients can separate fiction and entertainment from an actual visit to your office, the simple fact is that these pop culture representations mirror the sense of fear and uncertainty that many people feel about a trip to the dentist. You can’t erase Tim Whatley from the zeitgeist, but there are some steps you can take to make your patients more at ease.

Be a “role” model.

We all have a tendency to fear the unknown. Become known to your patients, as soon and as often as possible. It can be amazing how much a smile and a friendly greeting can put your patients at ease and erase any comparisons they may have built up in your mind to the dental torture icons they’ve encountered in popular culture.

As the stars of the film your patients are appearing in that day, you and your staff can make a big, positive impression through a focus on positivity, friendliness, and providing an open line of communication as often as possible. Don’t hesitate to ask first-time or even long-term patients if they have any concerns, fears, or worries. Take the time to explain what you’re doing before you do it, and always prepare patients if there may be some pain or discomfort associated with a procedure.

Monitor your waiting room materials.

It would be an unbelievable stroke of bad luck if Little Shop of Horrors happened to come on the waiting room television at just the wrong moment. While the chances of this happening are pretty slim, make sure that any programming playing in the waiting room is both age- and content-appropriate. You never know if the next segment on The View could be about some horrible dentist’s mistreatment of his or her patients. Make sure someone is responsible at all times for what’s on, at what volume, and what’s coming on next. Also, peruse any magazines you may be putting out to make sure they don’t include articles that you wouldn’t want your patients reading right before sitting in your chair.

Proudly display credentials and awards, both in person and on your website.

Yes, most patients take it for granted that you’ve graduated from dental school and earned all the appropriate degrees and licenses to perform the services you are about to provide. But some will be looking for it. The school you attended doesn’t have to be Princeton, but it might be a conversation starter, and for some patients, being able to see your certifications will add to their comfort level. If you are providing a specialized service that requires extra training and licensure, patients may be more at ease seeing those framed plaques.

Finally, have a sense of humor.

You don’t have to be a comedian with your patients or work on some material at the local Improv. In fact, that would be completely out of character for many, might come across as phony, and might even be off-putting. Rather, simply try not to take it personally if a patient brings up one of the scarier pop culture icons. Recognize that, for some patients, little comments in jest might be masking a legitimate fear of having their teeth poked and prodded. Use it as an opportunity to open a dialogue with the patient.

In a few simple steps, you can do your part to prevent the creation of any more rabid anti-Dentites!